This month, a small robot researcher rolls into the Antarctic to perform a gymnastics feat – headfirst under sea ice.
BRUIE, or the floating rover for exploration under the ice, is being developed for exploration of the underwater in extraterrestrial areas, icy water by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Next month, he will test his stamina at the Australian Casey Research Station in the Antarctic to prepare for a mission that might one day seek to live in ocean worlds beyond Earth.
There are moons throughout the solar system that are believed to be covered by deep oceans hidden beneath thick, frozen surfaces. Scientists such as Kevin Hand, JPL chief scientist on the BRUIE project, believe that these lunar seas, like those on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, are the best places to look for life in our solar system. But first they need a tough water explorer capable of navigating alone through a strange ocean trapped under ice sheets that could be 1
"The ice shells that cover these distant oceans serve as windows into the oceans, and the chemistry of ice could help nourish life in these oceans." Here on earth the ice that covers our oceans plays a similar role, and our team is particularly interested in what happens there, where the water is hitting the ice, "said Hand.
The Antarctic waters are the closest Earth to the oceans of the icy moon, making them an ideal testing ground for BRUIE technology. The three-foot (two-wheel) Rover can take pictures and gather data about the important region where water and ice meet, which scientists call the "ice-water interface."  "We have found that life often lives at interfaces, both at the bottom of the sea and at the ice water interface, and most submarines have a difficult time exploring this area as ocean currents could cause it to crash or would waste too much energy to hold your position, "said chief engineer Andy Klesh. "However, BRUIE uses buoyancy to stay anchored in the ice and is impermeable to most currents, and it can safely turn off and only turn on when a measurement is needed so it can spend months navigating the sub-ice environment . "
During several field tests in the Antarctic, the rover remains tied to the surface, while Hand, Klesh, mechanical engineer Dan Berisford, and the engineer of the University of Western Australia, Dan Arthur, test his instrument suite, including his two high performance instrument definitions cameras.
"BRUIE will carry various scientific tools to measure life-related parameters, such as dissolved oxygen, water salt content, pressure and temperature," said Berisford, who will apply the scientific tools if the first tests are good. However, life on other worlds such as Enceladus and Europe can be difficult to measure. "Once we get there," he added, "we really only know how to recognize a life similar to that on Earth, so it's possible that very different microbes are hard to spot."
While the team has previously tested BRUIE in Alaska and the Arctic, this is the rover's first attempt in the Antarctic. With the support of the Australian Antarctic Program, the crew will travel to lakes and coast near Casey Station to drill holes in the ice and dive BRUIE. The rover could even make friends – curious penguins and seals sometimes investigate when science teams pierce the ice.
The team will continue to work on BRUIE until it can survive for months under the ice without having to remotely navigate a leash and explore the ocean at greater depths. NASA is already building the Europa Clipper orbiter scheduled to launch in 2025 to study Jupiter's Moon Europa and lay the groundwork for a future mission to search for life under the ice.
News Media Contact
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California